In 1994 Yorkshire Television embarked on an ambitious project to produce a film anthology series of adult horror stories. The result was Chiller, a collection of five fifty-minute films exploring the supernatural, featuring recognisable leading actors from the time.
Since Chiller's original transmission - sporadically throughout the mid 1990s - it has gained something of an obscure cult status among fans of the anthology genre. Second-hand VHS releases have until recently commanded high prices and it is still well remembered, fifteen years on, thanks to the series' more notorious offerings; namely Toby and Number Six for the controversial depiction of children as figures of horror. Chiller is also well-recalled for its nightmarish title sequence depicting a screaming spectre that degrades into bubbling fragments. Graphic and disturbing, it quickly sets the tone for the series and no doubt encouraged a segment of the potential viewing audience to reach for the remote control and the sanctuary of another channel. Its ghoulish imagery lingers indelibly in the mind and on recent review, vividly lives up to the memory.
Produced by Lawrence Gordon Clark (famous for the BBC's Ghost Story for Christmas dramas) and Peter Lover, the series has a pair of guiding hands that assure high production values from the outset. The series is shot entirely in the traditional hallmark of quality for the time, 16mm film. Visually, it is comparable to Inspector Morse, A Touch of Frost and Jonathan Creek and instantly feels expensive. Most of the material is recorded on location throughout Yorkshire and the city of Leeds, providing a broad backdrop ranging from urban gothic to a romanticised rural greenery of the Dales. It almost feels as if the five stories within Chiller are written to showcase a variety of locations in the region, yet it is by no means constrictive to the direction of the series. Chiller feels authentically Northern in its gritty, grimy realisation of the domestic horrors of the city and it's hard to imagine the series set anywhere else. It’s been said that it’s grim up North - and Chiller does very little to shake off that reputation.
Chiller is traditional as an anthology series in the practical sense that is uses stunt casting in each episode whilst boasting the talents of a number of successful writers. Anthony Horowitz (Foyle's War) and Stephen Gallagher (Bugs, Murder Rooms, Doctor Who) pen a number of episodes and as the following outline details, several familiar actors appear who were acclaimed at the time in other popular shows.
Prophecy by Peter James, directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark
Francesca (Sophie Ward) partakes in a séance with some friends in the basement of her parents' café. Five years later, disaster begins to overtake each of them. Nigel Havers slides in as smooth and slick Oliver Halkin. Despite playing to his usual upper-class type, Havers is undeniably entertaining and typically charming throughout. The story is the work of Peter James though Gallagher adapts it in this instance. Whilst not the strongest outing in the series, nor the first to be recorded, it is an easy introduction to the tone of the show. There is for instance violence, swearing and nudity, which quickly sets Chiller apart from comparables such as Alfred Hitchcock Presents and even Tales from the Crypt, which is somewhat lighter in tone. There is an implication that this deliberately affirms the standard of adult horror which is to follow.
Toby by Glenn Chandler, directed by Bob Mahoney
Louise (Serena Gordon) and Ray Knight (Martin Clunes) lose their unborn child in a car crash. On becoming pregnant again, Louise is convinced that she is haunted by the baby’s malignant spirit. This episode is the one that's best remembered and for good reason. Toby is carefully realised, graphically disturbing in its presentation and relentlessly bleak in its denouncement. What could have easily become absurd is given credulity through the performances of Gordon and Clunes, the latter reminding us that he is a serious straight actor despite his success in comedy. Rosemary Leach is a scene-stealer as the miserable cat-lady neighbour. Bob Mahoney's conservative, mature direction shines in the haunting scenes, with some inspired low angle shots in the nursery. Possibly the best of the bunch.
Mirror Man by Stephen Gallagher, directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark
Young, homeless Gary Kingston (John Simm) is compelled by a mysterious friend to murder the social worker who is attempting to help him. When Anna Spalinksy (Pyllis Logan) takes over the case, she unknowingly becomes the next target. Logan is the better-known performer in this episode, having completed Lovejoy, yet it is a vibrant John Simm (pre-The Lakes) who is captivating as the haunted outcast, portraying troubled innocence with threatening aggression. At this point he is clearly a rising star and deservedly goes on to find great success in high profile roles. Locations used throughout the episode are very atmospheric, including the Eastgate portion of Leeds which is barely recognisable today, appearing so eerily bleak and desolate on screen.
The Man Who Didn't Believe in Ghosts by Anthony Horowitz, directed by Bob Mahoney
Rationalist Richard Cramer, (Peter Egan) moves into a supposedly haunted house. Soon he gets a bit of bother from craggy-faced Peter Walker (Miles Anderson), the previous owner of the property, who believes his dead wife is a permanent resident. The story is rather similar in concept to the classic haunted house yarn, yet it does provide a rewarding confrontation with Cramer and the ghost at the end, boasting some impressive visual effects. A pleasing touch of detail is casting of Angela Ripon as a television presenter, with a fleeting glimpse of the interiors of Yorkshire Television's studios during her scenes.
Number Six by Anthony Horowitz, directed by Rob Walker
In Helsby, a small Yorkshire town, DI Taylor (Kevin McNally) is desperately searching for the child killer who strikes at full moon. When his son goes missing, the hunt is on to prevent murder number six. Another memorable episode, this tale benefits from some very atmospheric location filming and lighting effects, transforming a riverside town into a bleak hunting ground for a silent killer. There are also some genuinely creepy narrative manoeuvres, such as seeing the killer depicted in the art class paintings of murdered children, and the eventual unveiling of the killer as a person every child trusts. Added gravitas is heaped on with the inclusion of Don Warrington as a University Lecturer who makes an astonishing breakthrough. Warrington is nothing less than engaging in all his roles and his placement in Leeds University is a welcome treat in a climatic tale which poignantly, yet reluctantly, closes the series. Interestingly, two of the 'evil children' extras grew up to become major actors in both Emmerdale and Coronation Street.
Chiller is a fine example of how anthology should be done. Each episode is meticulously paced, with advertisement breaks used to an advantage to bridge time and become more tantalising than intrusive. For a fifty-minute format, there is a distinguishable level of character development in each outing and none of the principle parts feel underwritten, which is often a shortfall with short form horror. Indeed, if there was a checklist for quality drama, Chiller would tick every box: The incidental music is subtle and well mixed - it isn't overused or domineering and complements the mature style of storytelling, and stylish direction technique, which is not simply the preserve of full feature film. Again, it is comparable to the values of Inspector Morse in that regard. The direction itself has flourishes of originality; there's several high angle crane shots and some very moody establishing scenes in streets, with edits that are conservative and don't attempt to distract the viewer from the performance of the players. The lighting is subtle, often low with distinctive grain to add texture, grime and ambience, playing on the strengths of 16mm. In short, Chiller is an outright professional product and clearly the fruits of an old guard production team who, to put it bluntly, know what they're doing because they've been at it for years. Perhaps it's overly cynical to assume that Chiller probably wouldn't get made now, though if it did it wouldn't look, feel or flow in the same way. But, some would argue, that's progress for you.
In the early 2000s I was stood in a pub in Leeds, waiting for a pint of stout. The barman was chatting to a rotund gentleman to my left. "Yorkshire television then?" the barman asked, disinterestedly. My ears pricked up.
"Aye. Telecine operator," he said flatly, sipping his ale. There was a silence as I was given my change.
"You don't know what that is, do you?" the man piped up. The barman swayed his head.
"Film," he added, almost secretively. "I'd transfer the film. Not that they bother with that anymore."
"Oh," the barman remarked lightly, passing me my pint. He began to clean glasses as I pondered the weight of what I'd just heard: Yorkshire Television had, effectively, given up filmed drama. That was it. It simply wasn't viable. There hasn't, to my knowledge, been any filmed series from YTV since then and that’s a great pity, especially as all of the other regional networks have followed suit, or even given up drama production outright. Chiller stands up, and stood up on its original showing, due to a large investment in its production values. The film stock alone would have cost several thousand pounds per episode, compared to a few hundred pounds of a digital video cassette. There was clearly a faithful investment in the visual quality of the programming back then which is all but lost now in the uniform age of high definition video, whether or not it is digitally graded to imitate film. Chiller is one of the last vanguards of British-made film dramas. It didn’t need to be shot on film, but it was, because it deserved it. For that reason alone, it also deserves a place in a DVD collection. Yet even beyond that, it's just staggeringly well made and as it infers, chills to the core.
Notes on the DVD Release
Network have returned to the original videotape broadcast masters for Chiller’s release on DVD, so what you see on the disc is precisely what was transmitted. As such there's a few inherent problems, such as an occasional videotape drop out and some crushed out blacks and blown out highlights - if the original film reels were transferred the pictures would no doubt be stunning but half the enjoyment is experiencing the washed out, grainy feel of the original show. The aspect ratio is a little bizarre, presented in 4:3 with a letterboxed image area of 16:10. Sound is excellent throughout, with particularly good stereo effects. As ever, Network have carefully included the original caption cards and bumpers with each episode (interestingly Mirror Man has an older 1994 card) and they have been generously spaced over two discs for maximum bitrate. Again, another reliable mastering, albeit without extras.
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